Gabriel Veras, director of the documentary Athletes of War.

This Week in TKFLASTAN: Gabriel Veras

Release Date: April 10, 2024

Category: Blog | Film

This week on the podcast, we talk with Gabriel Veras, director of the documentary Athletes of War. It tells the story of Ukrainian athletes struggling to train for Paris 2024 in the midst of the devastation caused by the Russian invasion.

Ukraine Olympic History

Ukraine doesn’t have a particularly long Olympic history as an independent country, although many Ukranians were part of the Soviet sport machine and did contribute to the success of the Soviet Union at the Games. Ukrainian Larisa Latynina, the most decorated women in Olympic history, claimed 18 medals in artistic gymnastics under the Soviet flag. Former President of the National Olympic Committee of Ukraine, Valeriy Borzov, was one of the Soviet Union’s top sprinters, winning five athletics medals for the Soviet Union at Munich 1972 and Montreal 1976. Borzov is married to Russian gymnastic legend Ludmilla Tourischeva, who became coach of several Ukrainian gymnastics. Sergey Bubka, the most dominant pole vaulter in history, competed at four different Summer Olympics. At Seoul 1988 he burst onto the scene to win gold for the Soviet Union (a story captured in one of our Seoul History Moments). Unfortunately, he couldn’t replicate this success at Barcelona 1992 as part of the Unified Team, which was formed from former Soviet Republics after the country’s collapse just months prior. Bubka then represented Ukraine at Atlanta 1996 and Sydney 2000. Now he is a member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

Independent Ukraine

When the Iron Curtain fell in the early 1990s, Ukraine gained its independence, competing as an independent nation for the first time at the Lillehammer 1994 Winter Olympic Games. Its first gold medalist was figure skater Oksana Baiul. The medal ceremony for Baiul was delayed because officials could not locate the recording of the Ukrainian national anthem (not because she was fixing her make-up, despite what Nancy Kerrigan was told). Since 1994, Ukraine has won 148 Olympic medal, including 38 gold.

Ukraine has also had a formidable Paralympic team. Since their first appearance at the Paralympics as their own team in 1996, Ukraine has won 472 Summer medals and 141 Winter medals.

Although the Olympic Truce was still in effect, Russia invaded Ukraine just before the Beijing 2022 Winter Paralympics. We were there to see history play out in real time, as Russia and Belarus were first allowed to compete, but then were sent home. Ukrainian athletes who competed dug deep to show the world what they were made of and were second in the overall medal count, with 11 golds, 10 silvers, and 9 bronzes–Ukrainians swept the podium in three of the 18 biathlon events. By comparison, USA placed fifth in the medal standings.

Loss of Life

According to the National Olympic Committee of Ukraine, over 400 athletes have been killed since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022. This includes Olympic athletes, competitors in non-Olympic sports, Paralympians, and coaches. Many served in the military and emergency services. Many were civilians caught up in the bombing and violence. That does not reflect athletes who have family members captured or killed in the war like Anastasia Laletina, who withdrew from competition at the Beijing Paralympics when her father was captured by Russian troops.

While loss of life is an element this film explores, the war will invariably produce more para athletes in Ukraine.

What Now?

Ukrainian athletes continue to train for Paris 2024, despite the loss of nearly 400 sport facilities in Ukraine. The IOC and International Paralympic Committee (IPC) have ruled that Russian and Belarussian athletes will be permitted to compete as neutral athletes. The IOC believes that sport and politics should not mix and that athletes should not be punished–although athletes in team sports will not get their chance to be at Paris 2024.  IPC members voted to allow individual athletes from Russia and Belarus at the Games.

Is this the right decision? Certainly not according to the Ukrainian government or NOC. This will be a major story this summer. Understand it a little better from our conversation with Gabriel Veras.

–Alison Brown, with contributions from Jill Jaracz